August 29, 2014 12:31 pm

40 years of storytelling: Brian Coxford retiring from Global News

WATCH ABOVE: Veteran reporters Brian Coxford and John Daly sit down for one last interview on the eve of Brian’s retirement from Global BC.

Brian Coxford has a tough time naming his favourite part of British Columbia.

“Tofino,” he starts. “Nelson. Love Nelson. Various parts of the Okanagan. The beaches of Vancouver.

“There’s a lot of them.”

Coxford has seen every corner of B.C., telling stories that have defined this province for generations. He’s won dozens of awards and broke hundreds of stories.

And today, he walks away. After 40 years, Coxford is retiring from Global News and starting a new chapter of his life. He leaves behind a legacy of outstanding reporting few in British Columbia will ever be able to match.

The early years


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When he sat down with fellow reporter John Daly earlier this week, Coxford could recall nearly every moment of a career at Global News that has spanned nearly 10,000 stories.

Well, except the first.

“Can’t remember,” he said. “Sorry. It was probably something that had no significance.”

After moving from his hometown of Winnipeg, Coxford had brief stints in Thunder Bay and with CKNW before joining Global, known then as BCTV in 1974. He developed his skills and grew his reputation at a time where tools available to reporters were nowhere near what they are today.

“No Google, no cell phones,” he laughs. “If you were trying to do an interview, first you went to a pay phone [and] hope they would answer,” he said.

“You couldn’t phone [someone] back and say I’m 15 minutes late, you just had to be there. But the good part of that is he couldn’t phone back and cancel.”

If something happened when he was out reporting, Coxford would get paged from the newsroom.

“You had to run to a payphone, and of course there would be a lineup, and people would get very upset if you spent more than a couple minutes, and in many cases the receivers were ripped up or stuffed with quarters so you couldn’t use it. But somehow, every night, we pulled it out.”

Coxford was part of a team that helped make the News Hour one of the greatest news operations in all of North America. He was one of the faces for viewers, but he always knew the station’s strength was rooted in the people behind the scenes.

“There was a concept developed a long time ago that it’s a team and you all have your responsibilities,” he said. “We’re writing stories, and cameramen are responsible for pictures, and editors for putting them together.

“And if you get that group together, you can tell a pretty good story.”

After a few years, Coxford became a reporter for the legendary Jack Webster, who hosted a daily news show (beginning at 9 a.m. “precisely”). Coxford was grateful for the opportunity to observe from the best every day, and honoured that he’ll be receiving the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement award from the Jack Webster Foundation later this year.

“He always questioned himself. He was nervous, what if I don’t ask the right questions, what if I’m not hard enough on him? When he got into it of course he was there,” he said.

“When you get a story and go ‘oh god, I hope I don’t screw this up,’ you worry about it, I think that’s the road to success.”

A consummate storyteller

While other reporters would have their specialties – crime, politics, the environment – Coxford was a generalist, able to produce captivating stories on nearly every subject, from any location.

“The greatest thing about this job, and we came through what we call a golden time, a real golden time, when you wake up in the morning and didn’t know where you were going,” he said.

And Coxford went places. To Winnipeg, to report on the 1997 Red River Floods. To Atlanta, where a forest executive named “Rusty Wood” was leading efforts to keep tariffs on B.C.’s softwood lumber industry. To Olympics in Salt Lake, Torino and Beijing, giving a look at what Vancouver could expect when they hosted their own games. To France, Netherlands, and Switzerland and Germany, where he reported on different health care systems that provided a mix of public and private care – a series that eventually won several awards.

The trips were far from vacations – his camera was confiscated by government officials in Beijing, and RCMP arrested him in Barriere for trying to get through a blockade. Assignment editors knew that Coxford could go to any location and connect viewers to the scene and its importance to British Columbians.

“I always felt, especially when you’re out of town, I find you do an excellent job of explaining what it feels like to be there,” Daly said to Coxford.

“Whether it’s on the edge of a dam or in Salt Lake City or some suburb of Paris racing around in an ambulance, I always had the feeling I was there with you.”

It was an on-location assignment closer to home, near Wells Gray Provincial Park, where Coxford had one of his most famous moments. In 1982, six members of the Johnson-Bentley family had been killed in a campground, with the 11 and 13-year-old daughters sexually assaulted.

For several months, police had been searching for the family’s camper to no avail. Coxford was there when they found it in the woods, and began knocking on nearby houses. In one of the first homes was David Shearing, who police arrested days later.

“We walked into the back yard, and here’s this hulk of a guy with an axe in this hand, and you just go…”

He pauses and shivers.

“Just in the back of where we were standing was the boat he had stolen. That was one of the reasons he killed them, he wanted the boat, and he wanted the girls. You know how you feel when you come across somebody like that, you have there’s something not right here, and it turned out not to be right.”

Front-row seat to history

Coxford’s persistence in finding a story gave him access to some of the most famous people in British Columbia. And his nose for a story allowed him, and viewers, to have a front row seat to incredible moments.

1985, Los Angeles: David Foster wins his first Grammy for Producer of the Year.

“We flew off in the morning, and he was totally accommodating, yeah, come to my house. We asked is there anything we can do? He said do whatever you want. His wife’s putting on makeup, he’s in his underwear, getting ready for the Grammy’s, he doesn’t care. We rode in the limo with him,” says Coxford, who later that night found himself at the afterparty as well.

1990, Seattle: Pavel Bure, a year after being drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, flies to the U.S. to join the team after a messy dispute with the Central Red Army.

“We had to find out where he was coming in from. We phoned the Canadian consulate, but it’s in America, so they actually talk to you, tell you things,” said Coxford.

“It was before 9/11, so you can go through the border without having to wait for hours. We rounded the corner at the consulate…got out of the car, got to the corner, and Pavel and Brian Burke are walking up the street about to get to the consulate.

“We got to them, started talking, and I thought ‘oh god, he’s Russian, I can’t talk to him.’ So I’m conducting the interview with Burke, and Brian finally says ‘for god sakes Brian talk to him! He can speak English!”

“Of course, all he could speak in English was ‘I want to score goal, I want to score.’ And he did.”

1998, back in Los Angeles: Whistler snowboarder Ross Rebagliati wins a Gold Medal at the Nagano Winter Olympics, has it taken away for using marijuana, and has it returned on appeal. He flies from Japan to Los Angeles, making his return to North America on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“We’ve got to find Ross. Absolutely no idea where he is. He’s supposedly on the Tonight Show later on, but where is he?” remembers Coxford.

“Fortunately we had a friend of ours who worked at NBC, we phoned her up. She made some contacts, and next thing you know, we’re driving around LA with Ross in a Porsche.

“He rented one, because this is his way of celebrating…from zero to everything.”

But he says his most difficult moment with a famous figure came years earlier in a Vancouver airport. Terry Fox was returning home, halfway through his Marathon of Hope across Canada, after learning that his cancer had spread.

“I was fortunate enough to be there to ask the first question, and I know it really bothered me. What are you going to ask him?”

“You can’t ask how he feels, that’s the worst possible question. I think my question was ‘if you could say anything to the people of Canada who supported you, what would you say to them?’ and he apologized, because he couldn’t finish the race.

“Incredibly determined kid. Wasn’t stuck on himself or anything, he just had this goal, and nobody was going to steer him away from it.”

Saying goodbye


Coxford isn’t sure what his next chapter holds yet, but will miss the buzz that comes with being in a newsroom every day.

“[''ll miss] the day-to-day joy of meeting people, working with fabulous colleagues that we have. And just learning something every day, and being involved in something that’s current.

He knows that the news business has changed rapidly in recent years, and will continue to change, but hopes that storytelling remains important.

“A good story I hope will always be there,” he says.

“There’s more than just facts, there’s something about the person that’s interesting, story that’s interesting, why people should care, why it’s important. If you can tell that in a storytelling format, there’s always a future.”

What will he miss most?

“Always meeting interesting people,” he says.

“And living in what has to be the greatest place on earth.”

WATCH: Brian stopped by the Morning News on his final day to discuss his career

© Shaw Media, 2014

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